2:07 p.m. EST
MR. RATHKE: Good afternoon, everybody. I imagine many of you were also watching the press availability at the White House, so understand why we’re a little bit late today. I have a couple of things to mention at the top – three, actually, to be precise.
First, Ukraine. It is one year to the day since Ukraine’s former government passed the so-called Black Thursday laws, draconian laws that denied the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech. Ukraine has come an enormous distance since then to meet its people’s aspirations. And the current government remains committed to advancing important reforms, despite ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine. These steps include last year’s free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, and a focus on anti-corruption efforts, including this week’s move by Ukraine’s parliament to increase the independence of the judiciary. These are critically important steps to help the country move forward, and we congratulate the people of Ukraine on how far they have come in such a short time, especially on this significant anniversary. And we continue to stand with them as they press forward on critical reforms.
Second item is Libya. We welcome yesterday’s announcement that the UN-led talks in Geneva will continue next week, and we applaud those Libyans who are participating. We reiterate our strong support for this UN effort and urge all parties invited by Special Representative Leon to engage in dialogue aimed at producing a unity government that the international community can support. The United States remains committed to working with the international community to help the Libyan people and the government build an inclusive system of governance to address core needs, to provide stability and security, and to address the ongoing threats.
And then the last item, the Secretary’s travels. As many of you have seen, Secretary Kerry was in Paris today where he met with Foreign Minister Fabius and President Hollande to offer condolences after last week’s attacks. He also laid wreaths at Hypercache Market and the Charlie Hebdo office with Foreign Minister Fabius. And the Secretary also laid a wreath at the site of the fallen policeman near the Charlie Hebdo office. He then met with the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and they both gave remarks. So a very moving day expressing U.S. support and underscoring our deep ties and ongoing, intensive cooperation.
Before leaving Paris, the Secretary met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif who was also in town for previous scheduled meetings, and they followed up on the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Geneva.
That’s what I have at the top. Brad.
QUESTION: Since you just brought it up, do you have a fuller readout of what the Secretary and Foreign Minister Zarif spoke about?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have a further update on or details on the conversations. Of course, they’ve met a few times this week in Geneva, and then they followed up today. Of course, the focus is on the nuclear talks. I would also highlight, of course, that as we’ve said many times when asked if other topics come up in these conversations, we always mention our concern for American citizens in Iran. And so in that regard, nothing different to report.
QUESTION: So there were already reports from Iran that the Secretary and Mr. Zarif spoke specifically about the Washington Post reporter. Do you know what the Secretary said or what he – what sentiment he —
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have that level of granularity. But of course, we continue to call for his immediate release – that is Jason Rezaian – as well as the immediate release of detained U.S. citizens Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, and for the Iranian Government to assist us in locating Robert Levinson so that all can be returned to their families as soon as possible.
Okay. Anything on that topic?
QUESTION: A follow-up on Iran?
MR. RATHKE: On that topic? Yeah..
QUESTION: You saw the President say today there’s a 50-50 chance of a diplomatic deal. Given the discussions over the – I mean, Paris was the second meeting this week. How would you describe those talks going?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into the details of exactly what they discussed. Of course, the Secretary is focused on the Iran nuclear issue, and that’s why he went to Geneva for those to meet with Foreign Minister Zarif. There was an opportunity today because they both happened to be in Paris and so they held another meeting, but I’m not going to characterize further the nature of the discussions.
QUESTION: So this is a matter of taking advantage of —
QUESTION: Any plans —
MR. RATHKE: Just – yeah.
QUESTION: So it was simply a matter of taking advantage of the timing to keep talking? There wasn’t any sense that there was an urgency for this meeting? I mean, people can coincidentally be in the same place and not need to meet.
MR. RATHKE: Right. No, but they both happened to be in Paris. They took the opportunity to meet. I wouldn’t go further beyond that.
QUESTION: Do you know if they said they’d meet again or when they would meet again?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any details like that. Of course, they’ve met a number of times in the past. But I don’t have anything to preview as far as when the next meeting might be.
MR. RATHKE: Well, the discussions in Geneva are ongoing, as you say, Roz. There have been bilats over the last couple of days, not only bilateral meetings with Iran but since other P5+1 countries are there, there have been U.S. bilats with other countries that are involved in the process. I don’t have details to read out of those. And then Sunday is the day when there will be a meeting in the P5+1 format. So those are ongoing. I don’t have details to read out from them.
QUESTION: So you’re not able to say whether they’re focused on any particular technical issues or dealing with any reports of efforts to, for example, try to enhance the capability of Bushehr reactor?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any readout to give from the talks that are ongoing in Geneva.
QUESTION: Can I ask you about Bushehr? Because I asked Wednesday, and I think Marie said at the time that she would look into it. Do you have a response to the talk about two additional reactors coming online at some point?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re aware that there was an announcement, and so we’re reviewing the details that surround it. I don’t have a specific comment on that. But in general, the construction of light-water reactors is not prohibited by the UN Security Council resolutions, nor is it in contradiction to the JPOA. And we’ve been clear in saying throughout the negotiations that the purpose of these negotiations is to ensure that – to ensure verifiably that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for civilian and peaceful purposes. So the talks that are ongoing are focused on closing off the possible pathways to acquiring a nuclear bomb. That remains our focus. But I don’t have more specific reaction on that particular announcement.
QUESTION: I’m a little confused because – are you saying that a light-water reactor can have no effect on a potential military nuclear program? Because you’re saying that your goal is to close off all pathways, and then you say light-water reactors are essentially okay.
MR. RATHKE: No, I didn’t say that – I didn’t say that it’s okay. I said that it is —
QUESTION: You said it is not —
MR. RATHKE: — not prohibited, not prohibited by the UN Security Council resolutions, nor does it violate the JPOA. That’s —
QUESTION: So you’re not concerned by them increasing their – you’re not concerned by this activity?
MR. RATHKE: I didn’t say that we weren’t concerned. But I said —
QUESTION: Are you concerned by this activity?
MR. RATHKE: What I would say is that the whole purpose of the negotiations with Iran is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for civilian and peaceful purposes, and that that is verifiable. So I’m not going to get into one part or another of the dialogue happening in the negotiations, but just to reiterate that our point is closing off the pathways to acquire a nuclear bomb. I’m not going to offer a technical —
QUESTION: Hasn’t part of that effort been to —
MR. RATHKE: — analysis of light-water reactors from the podium.
QUESTION: Hasn’t part of that effort been to lower Iran’s enrichment capacity that was seen as a major breakthrough of the JPOA?
MR. RATHKE: Again, I’m not going to get into details of the negotiations —
QUESTION: I haven’t even asked the question yet.
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: I mean, if you —
MR. RATHKE: I can see where you’re going, but go ahead.
QUESTION: If you want to deny that the JPOA was —
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead, finish.
QUESTION: Okay. Doesn’t – I mean, if they’re building two new reactors, wouldn’t that imply that they need more enrichment to feed them?
MR. RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: I don’t see how this is – you have such a neutral position on this, given that it seems to go against all your efforts.
MR. RATHKE: All I’ve simply outlined is the Security Council resolutions which have certain requirements and are – anyone can read, also the JPOA, that in our view the construction of light-water nuclear reactors is not prohibited by those two documents. That’s separate from saying whether it’s a matter of concern and whether it’s an issue of discussion. I’m not going to get into what’s being discussed in the room either in the bilateral talks with Iran or in the P5+1 talks.
QUESTION: I didn’t ask you that. I mean, I’m only talking about what’s been publicly spoken about by the Iranians, not what’s been conveyed in the room.
MR. RATHKE: Right. And what I’ve said is that we’re aware of the announcement and we’re reviewing the details. So we’re looking at this. I’m not offering a final position on what we think about that announcement. We’re aware of it and we’re reviewing it to understand it better.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
MR. RATHKE: Anything else on Iran?
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: During this Vibrant Gujarat event where Secretary Kerry was in attendance, there was a delegation led by one of the top advisors of the Iranian president. What is the U.S. view on the cooperation and the business deals that India and Iran are going ahead with? Are they not coming under the sanctions, or we are just turning a blind eye to whatever is going on?
MR. RATHKE: I wouldn’t suggest we’re turning a blind eye to anything. But I’m not familiar with that report. And of course —
QUESTION: It’s not a report but a —
MR. RATHKE: Of course, Vibrant Gujarat was an event organized by the Indian side, so I would refer you to them for any – for any details about participation. But beyond that, I don’t have – I don’t have in front of me an analysis of Iran-India ties, so I don’t have feedback on that.
QUESTION: I’m not asking for the participation. The participation and the – Prime Minister Modi’s pictures with the Iranian guy are all over on his website, on Indian external affairs, everywhere, with the flag of Iran and India behind them. I’m asking that if the – whatever comes out of this meeting and there is a business cooperation that is – do these cooperations falls under the U.S. sanctions, or not?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t know the details of whatever discussions are that you were referring to, Tejinder. So I’m not in a position to analyze them from here. But of course, our – the existing sanctions, both the UN sanctions as well as U.S. sanctions and sanctions by many other partners, remain in effect. That’s part of the JPOA approach. But I’m not going to get into the – into analyzing agreements to which the U.S. Government might not be privy and certainly which I’m not familiar with.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: There have been very serious clashes in Pakistan, Karachi, outside the French consulate. Three people have been injured, including an AFP photographer. One, I’d like to have your reaction to that; two, does the U.S. share the concerns or the anger sometimes of some Muslim populations about these cartoons; and would you advise the French authorities and maybe the publisher of Charlie Hebdo to be super cautious for the circulation and distribution of this newspaper?
MR. RATHKE: Well, with respect to Karachi, we’re aware of these reports. I don’t have any details that I can confirm from here, but we certainly urge all to refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and respect the rule of law. For further details, I would refer you to the Pakistani authorities and to the French Government for details of what precisely happened.
Now on the question of the cartoons, I think this is something we’ve spoken about, I know Marie addressed the last couple of days. And I think we stand by that point of view. First of all, no act of legitimate journalism, however offensive some might find it, justifies an act of violence. That’s, I think, an important starting point. Now there is content published around the world every day that people might take issue with, but that doesn’t mean that we question the right of media outlets to publish information. Our view is that media organizations and news outlets often publish information that’s meant to cause debate, to stir debate. And while we may not always agree with any particular judgment or every item of content, the right to publish that information is one that we – that is fundamental and that we see as universal. So I think that’s about as far as I would go in commenting on that.
QUESTION: Apparently there are more and more clashes. There have been clashes also in Niger. So do you fear that it could trigger more violence in the Muslim world?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t have an analysis to offer on that, I think, though our view on freedom of speech and freedom of the press is clear.
Anything on the same topic?
QUESTION: On the investigative side —
MR. RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — the raids in Belgium overnight, the ongoing reports of arrests of people who may be co-conspirators in the Paris attacks – what cooperation is the U.S. Government providing to the French and Belgian Governments as they try to run these cases down?
MR. RATHKE: Right. Well, of course we are aware of the reports from a number of countries about police operations. We’re monitoring the situation in Belgium very closely. Belgium certainly has our full support and solidarity in its counterterrorism efforts. Now, you didn’t ask, but just to make it clear, the U.S. diplomatic presence in Brussels, they are – they all are open – maybe they’re not open now, since it’s later in the day. But anyway, they’re open for business as normal and we are coordinating with our partners. But I’d refer you to the Belgian Government for details. We, of course, are supportive and we’ve got active and ongoing law enforcement and information sharing arrangements with our allies in Europe, and naturally those contacts continue, especially given what’s been going on.
QUESTION: So you’re helping? Is that what you’re saying?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to read out any specific information sharing or so forth, but we are supportive and we stand with our Belgian allies in their counterterrorism efforts.
QUESTION: What about the content of the AQAP video? Have there been any more efforts to —
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have anything new to add to what’s already been said about the video.
QUESTION: Going back to Niger and the protests that he was mentioning, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey tweeted out: “Protesters burn churches, French flag, and other items in Zinder, chanting ‘Charlie is Satan. Let hell engulf those supporting Charlie.’” Is that cause for concern? Are there – is there any concern with people down there at the Embassy or is there anything on that situation?
MR. RATHKE: I wasn’t aware of that report, so we can certainly check and see if we have anything more for you. But of course, I would go back to what I said in response to Nicolas’ question – we certainly call on everyone to exercise restraint and to express their views peacefully, and we certainly reject any kind of violence.
QUESTION: Is there any expectation that the general Travel Warning that went out in recent days might be updated in light of these protests outside U.S. installations?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any updates to that to announce. For those who are familiar with that worldwide caution, which was updated just recently, it’s quite detailed. And so I’m not aware of any move to change it in any way, but certainly it’s comprehensive and tries to give American citizens the best information and advice before going overseas.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have any confirmation of – apparently, the Saudis have postponed the flogging of the activist?
MR. RATHKE: Yes, we’re aware —
QUESTION: Apparently, they postponed it on medical grounds, that the doctor who carried out a pre-flogging checkup said – recommended that he does not go ahead.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, we are – we’ve seen the reports, and to our knowledge, they’re accurate. I don’t have anything to contradict them. I would go back to what we’ve said on this all along in our January 8th statement: We are greatly concerned that human rights activist Raif Badawi started facing the punishment of 1,000 lashes in addition to serving a 10 year sentence for exercising his rights of freedom of expression and religion. So we call on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment and to review Badawi’s case and the sentence.
QUESTION: Do you have anything – the BBC is reporting that the case of this blogger has been referred to the supreme court by the king’s office.
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have anything to confirm that. I wasn’t aware of that.
Anything on this topic, or a new topic, Nicolas?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: We have reports coming from N’Djamena, Chad about army vehicles sent from Chad to Cameroon. And apparently, the Chad parliament has voted for supporting Nigeria and Cameroon in their fight against Boko Haram. Does the U.S. – were you notified in advance about this, and do you support this regional military response?
MR. RATHKE: Well, we’re not in a position to confirm precisely what sort of support Chad has offered. And – but we certainly support a regional solution to the problem of Boko Haram, and in particular through the establishment of a multinational taskforce. And now, there is additional security assistance to countries in the region in the fight against Boko Haram. That’s under full consideration. And I don’t have any detailed updates to provide about that, but it’s certainly something we are considering. And so that’s our view on the assistance. We certainly support regional approaches.
QUESTION: So Jeff, are you talking about that you support the creation of a new force, a regional force? Because you got the Ghanaian president today talking about considering creating a military force to fight Boko Haram. It’s unclear whether that’s a regional force or whether – I doubt he’s talking about a Ghanaian one.
MR. RATHKE: Mm-hmm. I don’t have details on that. I haven’t seen that report. So we can see if there’s more that we have to say and get back to you about that.
QUESTION: And do you know, perhaps, what the Secretary was talking about, about the – a new – the possibility of a new British-U.S. initiative to fight Boko Haram that he mentioned yesterday?
MR. RATHKE: Right. I don’t have anything new to read out about that.
QUESTION: There was some concern about the conduct of Chadian troops in the Central African Republic when they intervened in that crisis. Does the United States carry any of those concerns into potential Chadian involvement in Nigeria?
MR. RATHKE: Well – I see. Okay. So you’re asking about Nigeria, though, in this particular case. I don’t have any views to offer on that. I understand the point you’re raising, so let us check into that and come back to you.
MR. RATHKE: Yes. Well, as we’ve made clear over the last couple of weeks, we are deeply troubled by Palestinian action at the ICC. Our position on this is clear, and we don’t think that the Palestinians have established a state, and we don’t think they’re eligible to join the International Criminal Court. I would highlight that many other countries share this view, and we’ve put out a lengthy position paper on that to which people can refer. So our —
QUESTION: But wasn’t there – I mean, this is a prosecutor of the —
MR. RATHKE: Right. That’s – so that’s – no, I wanted to start, though, just to remind.
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
MR. RATHKE: So to be clear, what the prosecutor announced today is not an investigation. It’s a preliminary examination. Now, I don’t have any further comment on it, and in general, as we’ve long said, the United States strongly opposes actions by both parties that undermine trust and create doubts about their commitment to a negotiated peace.
QUESTION: Okay, but —
QUESTION: No, wait —
MR. RATHKE: No, go ahead.
QUESTION: Your comment – except for “no comment,” the rest was extraneous to the question, right?
MR. RATHKE: This – well this has just happened in the last couple of hours. I don’t have any further comment to offer on the announcement by the ICC prosecutor.
QUESTION: Would you hope that, if the prosecutor moves forward, he would examine the possibility of infractions by both sides and not just one side?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I don’t think we’re in the position of giving advice to the ICC prosecutor on that score.
QUESTION: Even on impartiality you don’t give advice?
MR. RATHKE: Well, again, we – going back to where I started, we don’t believe that the Palestinians have formed or established a state, and we don’t think they’re eligible to join the International Criminal Court, so —
QUESTION: But I don’t think this investigation necessarily hinges on that, because they still haven’t joined and this prosecutor is investigating regardless. So that comment – that notwithstanding, your point’s noted on the Palestinians, they’re not a member, and this thing has been opened nevertheless. So what’s your position on the investigation, not – or the preliminary examination, not the Palestinians’ course of action?
QUESTION: Is it an illegitimate preliminary examination?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to characterize it. Again, this has just happened, so I’m not going to characterize it further at this point.
QUESTION: Both the Israeli prime minister and the foreign minister have condemned the ICC’s decision to open this preliminary exam. Would it be fair to say that the U.S. Government shares their view?
MR. RATHKE: Well, look, our view on the Palestinians joining the ICC I would go back to, so I’m not – I haven’t seen those particular statements by Israeli officials, so I’m not going to say anything one way or another about them. Again, this is an announcement that has just taken place. We’re looking at it. Our view is – on the broader question of the ICC, we don’t think the Palestinians have met the necessary requirements to be a part of it.
QUESTION: I’m not sure that’s the broader question. I think that’s a completely separate question, but —
MR. RATHKE: Well, I think —
QUESTION: — I don’t quite —
MR. RATHKE: — it’s certainly related, so —
QUESTION: Is it conceivable that the U.S. will appeal to the ICC to drop the preliminary examination?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not going to speculate about anything like that. As you know, we’re not a member of the ICC, but I’m not going to speculate about any particular steps.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. ever asked the ICC not to look into any particular case involving human rights violations?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have that at my fingertips, Roz. I’m happy to look, but I don’t have that.
QUESTION: Yeah, if you could, please.
MR. RATHKE: Tejinder.
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to speculate or – but this is a subject that’s being discussed in Delhi, and – that Delhi has a thick fog in the mornings. And usually – and so when the Air Force One goes, is it going – how is it going to land if there is a fog on that day? Will it go to Ahmedabad or Islamabad?
MR. RATHKE: It won’t surprise you that I’m not going to comment on the air operations of Air Force One. I’d refer you to the White House if you’ve got questions about that.
QUESTION: But this – I raised it here because it is being discussed in the State Department.
MR. RATHKE: It won’t surprise you that we are not going to comment on air operations of Air Force One for obvious reasons, I think.
MR. RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Is – do you have views about the surge of the Swiss franc, which apparently rocks the global currency market? Is it a source of concern for U.S. interest and American tourists going there?
MR. RATHKE: I’m not aware and I don’t think we normally comment on currency issues in that respect. I’ll —
QUESTION: You’re not aware of conversation between the two governments?
MR. RATHKE: Not that I’m aware of.
Yes, go ahead.
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — he will be traveling to Brussels next week to attend Japan trilateral forum. And Spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a Foreign Press Center briefing that this will be a key forum for discussion on trilateral cooperation between U.S., Korea, and Japan. Can you explain what this forum means and what it’ll be discussing, who else will be participating, and how it is related to Korea-Japan cooperation?
MR. RATHKE: Okay. I think, yeah, there are two different things here. Let me make sure and I want to highlight – I think Marie said this yesterday, but I can go over it again. So Ambassador Sung Kim, who is the special representative for North Korea policy – he’s also deputy assistant secretary for Japan and Korea – he’s traveling to Brussels in the next few days, January 19th and 20th, and he’s attending there the Japan trilateral forum. This is an event organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. It was established with the purpose of bringing together policy makers, intellectuals, journalists, business leaders from Japan, Europe, and the United States, and for dialogue on matters of mutual interest.
There is separately a – there will be a trilateral in Tokyo for Special Representative Sung Kim. He mentioned this in his testimony earlier this week. And if you’re interested in the details of the scheduling, I’d refer you to the Government of Japan. At this point, we don’t have details on that to announce right now.
So there are two different events. There is the event in Europe, which is not a government-to-government multilateral meeting. It is a meeting that brings together policy makers as well as people from outside of government. It’s Japan, Europe and the United States. Then there will be a trilateral in Tokyo, and that’s what Special Representative Kim was referring to in his testimony on the Hill earlier this week.
QUESTION: So the meeting in Brussels, that has nothing to do with Korea, right?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I wouldn’t say – I wouldn’t put it that way. There – he will be – of course, security in Northeast Asia is an important part of our relationship with Japan, as well as with our other allies and partners in Northeast Asia.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. RATHKE: Yes.
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: A new subject, or —
QUESTION: No, same subject.
MR. RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I want to ask just about one that we already discussed here, and that is a – today, there were two analyses on – saying that last year was the Earth’s warmest on record. Given the Secretary’s interest in this, do you have any comment on that?
MR. RATHKE: Right. There – we, I think, have just released a statement by the Secretary on this, and if you haven’t seen it, I’m happy to quote it for you. It’s fairly short.
The – in the Secretary’s words: What’s surprising is that anyone is surprised that 2014 was the hottest year on record. The science has been screaming at us for a long, long time. We’ve seen 13 of the warmest years on record since 2000. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are at an all-time high, which we know leads to a warming planet. And we’re seeing higher than ever occurrences of extreme weather events like catastrophic droughts, storm surges, and torrential rain. These events are having devastating economic, security, and health impacts across the planet. So this report is just another sound in a steady drumbeat that’s growing increasingly more urgent. And the question isn’t the science. The question isn’t the warning signs. The question is when and how the world will respond. And as the Secretary closes: Ambitious, concrete action is the only path forward that leads anywhere worth going.
QUESTION: So how do these analyses bode for an important year in climate talks that – and they hope to reach in a – or efforts to reach a deal in December?
MR. RATHKE: Well, certainly, it only underscores the urgency. And the Secretary, of course, has been actively engaged. I would also refer you to the press availability over at the White House today where this was also discussed. So this only reminds, if any reminder was needed, how important it is to work toward the goals that the Administration has set.
MR. RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: — and the arrests?
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any specific meetings or exchanges to detail, but certainly, we stand in support of and solidarity with our partners in Europe. And as I said before, we have active security cooperation and information-sharing arrangements with them, and it’s precisely at a time like this when those are most important.
QUESTION: And was there any contact with —
MR. RATHKE: I don’t have any details to read out about those.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
MR. RATHKE: Okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:41 p.m.)